Critical Literacy at the Speed of Technology

Critical Literacy at the Speed of Thought Technology

This morning I came across a video on the rapid advancement of technology I shared on social media five years ago.

Five years later – has education changed? Not much, the bureaucracy of the U.S. educational system moves at the pace of an age, not a year or even a decade. Have I changed my teaching goals and objectives? To be honest, no I haven’t. And I don’t intend to.

It is more important now that it ever has been in my 20 year teaching career to model, engage, and instruct my students in the skill of critical thinking.  To do that, I must have access to technology and know how to use it effectively. My students are familiar with and have access to technology, but they have little experience in understanding the ways in which technology is used to manipulate, entice, and distract them; they must develop problem solving and critical thinking skills.  Critical thinking must be taught in our schools – free of partisan, political, economic, religious, or personal agendas.  That is a tall order these days as partisan influences threaten public education more frequently than I’ve witnessed in my career.  Public education must be funded adequately and without bias in order to nurture and develop citizens who have the ability to think independently and evaluate information regardless of the source.  As a public high school teacher of reading, writing, and communication (a.k.a. English teacher), I have seen the technology available in schools lag behind industry for years. What I know to be true is that the human brain, as highly complex as it is, remains as pliable and teachable as it ever has been. How do teachers keep up with the pace of technology and build critical thinking skills in their students?

One hundred and fifty years ago, it became possible to send information across oceans in a matter of hours through the technology of the telegraph. It now takes nanoseconds.  It takes less time for a message to travel the globe than it does to process its meaning, depending on the message.  Emojis and symbols transmitted relay short messages that are immediately processed:  :), :(, ↑, ≠, #.  However, as texts become more complex in the upper grades, sophisticated comprehension abilities and longer thought processing times are necessary for textual analysis. Information can be transmitted in seconds, and our high school students have nearly unlimited access to the internet. As educators, we need the resources to combat manipulative messaging that can be transmitted via technology in order to teach our students to critically evaluate information from any source. Tweets, blogs, poems, lyrics, cartoons (editorial/political), advertisements, fiction, nonfiction, essays, articles, speeches, movies, images, animated videos, and journal articles are just a few types of texts students encounter in school settings.

Recently, I posted the results of a classroom survey that revealed the sources my students rely on for news.  Where students get their information reveals just how much technology is a part of their lives, and I have no doubt that my students represent a fair estimate of the teens across the U.S. Increasingly, we get our information from digital technology, and that will increase as long as technology exists. During the burgeoning era of railway transportation, Thoreau observed that technology had the potential to overrun our lives when he stated, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us” in Walden.  Perhaps technology always will ride us, or drive us. Cars are literally capable of driving us; engineers and manufacturers have gone beyond the prototype.

Since Thoreau’s time, technology has become more ubiquitous in our lives. How effectively are we instructing students to understand how technology is used to manipulate and distort information?  The curriculum I am asked to teach focuses on reading comprehension and annotating texts, but it does not emphasize the skills of conducting research, evaluating sources, or analyzing themes and unifying ideas that stretch beyond texts. Research, critical thinking, and global ideas – I teach those skills because those are the skills students need to function in the high-speed technological world of the 21st century.

I don’t give a damn if research, critical thinking, and global ideas aren’t tested in schools; I’ll teach them anyway.

Critical thinking and literacy empower our students to thrive as citizens with fulfilling lives and careers: the ultimate goal of public education.  At the end of each school year I reflect on what I hoped to accomplish with my students. I hope I have helped my students learn skills that no one can ever take away: a deeper ability to think critically and independently, to communicate their ideas clearly, and to evaluate information objectively. I want my students to be able to evaluate information with objectivity and to distinguish authentic information from fraudulent or misleading information regardless of the source: political, financial, legal, educational, or personal.

I also want my students to develop a love of learning, to have an outlet for creativity, and to enjoy reading for pleasure. Unfortunately, the last three seem to have been thrown aside in this age of rapid information and technology. Reading fiction beyond the elementary and middle school years helps develop critical thinking, even though some may disagree (common core advocates, are you listening?). Common core standards focus primarily on informational texts in contemporary high school English classes; as a result, my heart grieves each year that I am unable to read and discuss with my students American Literature texts and concepts. We need deliberate thinkers, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain (and so many others), as a foundation from which to measure cultural diversity, social progress, civil engagement, social and political discourse, cosmopolitan (global) ideas, and philosophy. I digress.

My first loves in teaching are writing and American Literature. My district doesn’t even offer an American Literature course anymore, at least not at my school. That breaks my heart. I taught American Literature to juniors for 16 years. As for teaching writing? Students are rarely given the opportunity to choose what they want to write about.  Any teacher of writing worth his or her salt can guide students toward a topic, audience, and purpose that meets the standards (follows a rubric) and makes the writing assignment as authentic as possible. Another issue that breaks my heart – teachers who teach writing should be writers themselves (a nod to my most influential career experience with the National Writing Project. My local site has been shuttered for some time, and the professionalism and camaraderie I enjoyed with my fellow NWP colleagues is all the more dear due to the paucity of meaningful professional development in my local area in the intervening years). Earlier this year, teaching a ‘canned curriculum,’ I was forced to make my students plod through an essay topic that neither they nor I were particularly interested in. It was torture. One semester was enough of that crap.  I’ll let students choose to write about topics that interest them, and I’ll teach writing the way it should be taught – not from a pre-programmed pile of pedantry. I’m not one to follow a curriculum created by someone thousands of miles away with no idea what my students need. Next year? I’ll assign the mode of essay required, but let the students choose the topic. I could go on at length, but…

I’ll step aside from my soapbox soliloquy.

The most important concept I can teach my students is to critically evaluate the information to which they are exposed. In order to do that, students must have the ability to comprehend what they read (build vocabulary and understand inferences), to recognize faulty reasoning and engage in sound reasoning (logical reasoning skills), to research and evaluate sources for credibility (vocabulary, grammar, and logical reasoning skills), and to communicate their ideas clearly (logical reasoning, organization, recognizing inference, diction, grammar, and process skills). While the technology around us and how we access information may change, these skills will remain vital for processing information and communicating ideas.

The foundation of critical thinking begins with reading and communicating; from that foundation, critical literacy in all other disciplines is developed.

We must deliberately and purposefully engage students in critical thinking in all disciplines; technology offers information at the speed of millions of megabits per second and the human brain must be taught to think critically in order to successfully navigate the daily digital traffic of memes, soundbites, and misinformation.

In order to train our 21st century students to think critically, public schools need adequate funding for advancements in technology and meaningful professional development to train teachers to use evolving technology effectively to teach students to be critical evaluators of the megabytes of information that digital technology makes available every day.

We cannot anticipate how technology will develop in another 150 years, but we can anticipate that the human brain will still need to be trained to think critically regardless of the technology used to transmit information.


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